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By Brandon Evans – Mabble Media

 

 

There’s a freshly renovated house just outside of Reno, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills. But calling this a house is like calling Disneyland a park. The place has 9 bedrooms across 18,000+ sq ft, and sports a bowling alley, full court basketball, billiards, and a gym. It’s adorned with vibrant and subversive art, and every window offers a panoramic view of the ruggedly beautiful Northern Nevada landscape. This is not a house. It’s a wonderland.

 

The place is home to a drug and alcohol treatment center founded by an eclectic group known as “The Differents”, a team of creative former substance users on a mission to spark a rehab renaissance. Given the catastrophic rise in the use of fentanyl, record levels of opioid-related deaths, and a scarcity of resources for those struggling with addiction, The Differents’ center is sorely needed, both locally and nationally.

 

I’ve gotten to know the founders over the past few months as they prepared to open their treatment center. But this is not just an article about the opening.

 

There’s far more to the story than that.

 

Heroin and Heart Attacks

Whatever the entrepreneurial gift is, Joe Rippey and John Hanrahan have always had it. As undergrads, they made six figures throwing parties at their New England Liberal Arts college. After graduation, they both went to work at Joe’s family’s radiator business, expanding it to 250 franchises within 10 years. “And we didn’t know anything about cars,” Joe says with a deep, raspy voice. They didn’t need to.

 

If the goal in life is to make millions and retire early, Joe made it look easy. In 2015, before the age of 40, he sold the radiator company for $110 million. He was at the height of success.

 

But then two days later, he was arrested for heroin possession. Turns out, he was also in the depths of addiction.

 

You don’t go from zero to a Scarface-level drug bust overnight. It started the usual way for Joe—partying, drinking, a little coke here and there—before devolving into a $10,000/week Oxy habit. “Then it got bad,” he said as his piercing light blue eyes flared.

 

And did it ever. Oxy opened the door to heroin, and Joe—this GQ-looking millionaire executive—was transformed into a crawling, gray gollum scratching the skin off his bones. He lost friends and family. And, through a series of unfortunate events, he lost his fortune. Then he lost his pulse.

 

Joe’s addiction culminated in a heroin-induced heart attack on Thanksgiving in 2016. This is usually a fatal experience, but, like Joe says, he’s “as hard to kill as the moss growing at Chernobyl”. He entered rehab.

 

Rehab Needs to Go to Rehab

For people who struggle with substance abuse like Joe, rehab is a necessary step towards recovery. Drug and alcohol rehab centers give people a chance to detox, slow down, and get the help they need. They offer a pause in the mayhem, allowing individuals the space to recover. “The first time I went to rehab, I realized I hadn’t sat down in 12 years,” Joe says.

 

But here’s the problem. No one should have to use the phrase “the first time” when talking about rehab. And this is where the deeper issue is.

 

Joe didn’t just return to rehab—he frequented rehab clinics. In just the span of a couple years, he checked into 16 different facilities across multiple states for a cumulative total of 400 days, spending $6 million in the process. And he went to the premiere facilities, too. His fellow residents included professional athletes, celebrities, and even a member of the British royal family. His sponsor was an Oscar winner. I wish I could say who, but this isn’t a gossip column, and I don’t want to get sued.

 

Even a casual look into the rehab industry is enough to see that it’s riddled with fraud and corruption . And that’s understating it. Many treatment centers are overpriced scams masquerading as rehab. And the failure rates are astronomical. Statistically speaking, for every 100 people who check into rehab, 95 will return. The system is selling a product that doesn’t work, and the vast majority of people leave rehab with the same vulnerabilities they entered it with.

 

For example, at one facility in Napa the room used for drug testing also serves as storage for paper towels. Guess who figured out how to hide heroin there? “I stashed it in the third paper towel roll on the second shelf,” Joe tells me. Not only did he manage to fail every one of his drug tests while in rehab, he was able to get higher while taking them. So were a bunch of others. And Joe was paying tens of thousands of dollars a month to be there. “The place had a great cafeteria, though,” he says with biting ridicule. 

 

It’s a tragedy that countless people who look to rehab as a solution find out that they’re paying exorbitant fees to increase the problem. They could have just done nothing and gotten the same results for free. The industry doesn’t want that to happen, though, because—like the drugs—the industry hooks you, and keeps you coming back for more.

 

Enter The Differents

In many ways, you are not like Joe. Nobody is. He’s an eccentric exec turned artist with a Burning Man aesthetic and commanding presence who waxes philosophical. Last time I hung out with him, he was wearing a neon yellow beanie with eggplant purple joggers and providing free-flowing commentary on cosmology and the history of art to a room full of attentive listeners. I mean, this is a person who’s made and lost nine figure sums. The chances of Joe eventually having a biography written about him are higher than he ever got. He is that unique.

 

But, as he rightly proclaims, his addiction experience is not unique. He’s one, among countless others, who climbed the corporate ladder thinking it was leading, as he says, “to a gilded lifestyle, only to discover that it was dropping me into a woodchipper”. Joe worked until he was exhausted from the relentless pursuit of bigger goals, suffocating inside and turning to substances to do what they were designed to do—make him feel better. And they did, for fleeting moments.

 

What was Joe’s real problem? “I was chasing other people’s stories,” he told me. “That’s really how it all started.”

 

We all begin life this way, chasing stories given to us from our parents, our peers, or from societal standards of success. We become who we’re expected to be, not who we really are. This is what leads us into careers that suck our time, lifestyles that suck our money, and relationships that suck our souls. But our false selves can’t connect to others, nor can we really be seen. Living in someone else’s story is exhausting and empty, and is a gateway to substance abuse.

 

Whose story am I really living? This is a question we rarely ask ourselves—if ever—but it might be the most important one. Whose vision for our lives are we pursuing? Ours, or someone else’s? A lot of us, myself included, have discovered that the pressure to live under the weight of our personas is too much, and we collapse. But that’s when we can discover something better on the other side. 

 

Finally clean, Joe began sponsoring addicts. He had seen too many people not make it out of rehab alive, or find healing on the other side, and he became more aware of the need for a new kind of treatment center, an alternative to the corrupted system. Then came a spark of inspiration, and this is where the idea for The Differents was born.

 

In 2019, Joe reconnected with John, his old friend, former business partner, and “cosmic leprechaun” (Joe’s words). John, like Joe, had been climbing the corporate ladder of despair, making money for other people while having his soul strangled in the process. Then one day he found himself alone in his San Francisco garage. He hadn’t slept for days. He had no idea what the date was. He was at his end, and something had to change.

 

For John, the necessary change was geographical. He and his family relocated to Reno to start a new chapter, with help from Joe. It had only been a few years, but it felt like the two were reunited after a lifetime apart. Their relationship was different, because both of them were. But as the two friends spent days and nights reflecting on the human condition—on regrets, death and despair, and new beginnings—they started dreaming together again. And the concept for The Differents began to take shape.

 

Now, two guys with a knack for selling radiators aren’t necessarily equipped to revolutionize the rehab industry, regardless of how passionate they are. They need experts for that.

 

Enter Heather Taft. Heather met Joe in 2021, and, on their first date, the two quickly discovered they shared a similar trajectory. Like Joe, Heather had spun out of control before breaking a generational cycle of dysfunction in her family and starting living her own story. And, also like Joe, she had been dreaming of opening her own treatment center to help others do the same.

 

Heather chose to walk down a different path and got involved in rehabilitation, which led to her earning an MA in Psychology (her thesis was on evidence-based substance abuse treatments) and starting a career in the recovery field. Her journey through the valley of the shadow of death to new life, combined with her education and experience, gives her an empathetic expertise that is shockingly absent throughout most of the rehab industry. She believes wholeheartedly in integrated care—mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and social. “We can’t provide effective treatment by addressing only one portion of the person,” she says.

 

In addition to doing renovation work on the property while she was eight months pregnant (which is, frankly, superhuman), and pouring through county and state legislature to convert the property from commercial to residential and obtain SAPTA Accreditation, Heather has brought in The Differents clinical and medical teams, including Denise Everett, who was at a key transition point in her professional career with the vision of doing more for people struggling from substance abuse, Dr. Damon Zavala as Medical Director, and Monika Marsh as Primary Therapist.

 

Even though it stems from his spark of imagination, and even though the founding team is directly connected to him, Joe isn’t really the driving force behind The Differents. He didn’t recruit the team. The synchronicity of their stories is improbable—so many circumstances and events had to line up perfectly for their paths to intersect. But they found each other. In many ways, they’re kindred spirits. Unique individuals with the Gen X anti-establishment spirit, raging against the rehab machine. But they also share the spirit of progress, are open to exploring evidence and forming new ideas, and have reclaimed hope in their lives. And now, they share a common purpose in launching a recovery revolution together.

 

A Rehab Renaissance

The rehab system is broken, and the question is—why? According to the founders of The Differents, the system is run by the detached executives who siphon money from facilities and shackle the clinicians who are providing the actual care for those struggling with addiction. Unsurprisingly, being good at business doesn’t automatically qualify someone to operate an effective treatment center. When it comes to effective rehab, there needs to be empathy and compassion, experience and expertise, and a passion to help people find hope. That makes all the difference.

 

There’s a lingering question—if rehab didn’t work, how did Joe end up recovering? Well, it turns out his addiction had an underlying cause—Lyme disease. This had been overlooked for years because the rehab centers Joe frequented had failed to look deeper, and, when the bug was finally diagnosed and treated, he never touched heroin again. Addiction, research shows, is not an isolated issue. So The Differents’ approach is to treat the whole person, identifying contributing factors to addiction, including underlying medical issues. In Joe’s case, this would have saved him from years of suffering. The Differents also teach individuals to identify their body’s patterns and sensations because, as Heather says, “If you can’t recognize it, you can’t change it.”

 

Their approach also emphasizes the role of human connection. There was a landmark study a few years ago that has shaped a new perspective on addiction and recovery. Researchers gave methamphetamine and heroin addicted rats the choice between pressing one lever for a drug infusion or a different lever to open a door that would enable them to interact with another rat. They chose the furry friend over the drugs more than 90 percent of the time. Humans are obviously more complex than rats, but we’re not different in the sense that human connection matters when overcoming addiction. “We’re all seeking connection, to feel seen,” Heather said to me. “Especially through the horrible times.” 

 

So The Differents have unshackled the clinicians who are providing the care, and have created a recovery habitat where people are treated like peopleThere isn’t a cold, sterile detox room on their property, and their clinicians are selective in their use of pharmaceuticals. They also engage in collaborative healing, involving those in recovery in designing their treatment plans. This is possible because they provide a 1:3 staff:client ratio, as opposed to the paltry industry standard of approximately 1:10.

 

The spelling of their name is significant, and worth drawing attention to. It’s not The Differ ence , which would convey the abstract concept of making a significant impact. Instead, it’s The Differ ents , because it’s about the people who are making that significant impact. The Differents is not a rehab facility. It’s a community of resurrected people, those who found life on the other side of addiction. And that’s shaped their whole approach.

 

And this is another vitally important thing that The Differents helps those with addictions discover. Without it, it is virtually impossible to get sober.

 

It’s the meaning of life.

 

Finding the Meaning of Life

There is another landmark study conducted on Vietnam veterans. Approximately 20% of the troops stationed in Vietnam returned to the U.S. with a heroin addiction, which is a staggering number. Yet only 5% of them became re-addicted within a year—the exact opposite of rehab success rates. Why? “Because they weren’t sent back to Vietnam,” Joe says. Yet that’s precisely what the rehab industry does—it sends people back to their “addiction Vietnam” with little more than a list of available AA meetings. Life on the other side of rehab has to be different, however, or the past will find its way back.

 

The Differents extend their care beyond rehab. They’re there on the other side, helping keep people from falling into old habits, assisting in finding jobs, getting connected, and establishing new rhythms of life. In other words, they help people find their meaning.

 

“What was it that got you out of your garage, John?” I asked. “The good,” he tells me. “A deep sense of meaning. That’s the only way I can describe it.” John realized he had something not just to stay alive for, but to live for.

 

Like the Lyme disease underlying Joe’s addiction, finding meaning in life is what lies underneath recovery. Finding our “why”—what gets us out of bed in the morning, what we stand for, what we’ll fight for. Without a why, there is no hope for sustained recovery.

 

Heather discovered that her purpose had been deep within her, a long-forgotten hope buried under a lot of pain that needed polishing, but it was there .

 

“What do you think the meaning of life is, Joe?” I ask him. He doesn’t blink. “I can tell you what it’s not,” he responds. “It’s not about being right about everything, and it’s certainly not about living someone else’s story.”

 

Finding meaning in life is a subjective experience. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. We can’t be told what it is—we have to discover it for ourselves. And therein lies the secret sauce of The Differents, if you’d call it that. They’re a collection of people who found their true selves after killing their personas, emerging from addiction with restored dignity and a vision for life. And they have a shared purpose of helping people envision life on the other side of rehab, to find their meaning, so they can leave rehab on the journey toward becoming who they were meant to be. The story of the Differents isn’t really about the founding of a new rehab facility. It’s about finding the meaning of life, and then helping others find it too.

 

Getting clean is only the beginning. But then what? It’s not about what we’re running from, especially addiction. It’s about what we’re running towards . What is the meaning of your life? Whose story are you going to start living? Those are the real questions. And they’re the ones The Differents are here to help answer. 

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